Saturday, May 17, 2014

Poro Point, San Fernando Airport, La Union

San Fernando Airport, La Union

I just returned from an overnight air safari to and from Poro Point (May 16 - 17, 2014). This was my first flight to San Fernando Airport (around 100 kilometers northwest of Rancho Caridad) and the landscape en route was beautiful--yet not as "threatening" as those en route to Baler and Castillejos. I didn't have to fly so high as there were no mountains to cross; however, I did prefer to maintain an altitude of between 1,500 to 2,000 feet to get a good view of the Cordillera Mountains and its foothills along the northern stretch of the Lingayen Gulf.

As I am a newbie in radio communications, I was almost relieved that the control tower did not respond when I called to request permission to land. Thereafter, I just reported my position each step of the way until landing on the tarmac. As it happens, there was a utility-vehicle sweeping the airstrip while I was on final approach, which was a bit alarming. Fortunately, the vehicle entered the ramp (out of the main airstrip) just seconds before I touched down. I later confirmed that my radio frequency setting at 122.1 MHz was correct and that the San Fernando Airport and its control tower start operations at 8 a.m. This works for me as I would typically land at my air safari destinations (including San Fernando Airport) no later than 7 a.m.

As I parked my aircraft beside the airport building, I was met by a bunch of friendly airport staff, foremost of which was Roberto Odido, Airport Marshall and veritable Guest Relations Officer. When I mentioned that I came from Nampicuan, Nueva Ecija, Robert informed me that he was born in Mt. Amorong, the neighboring dormant volcano of Mt. Balungao, another dormant volcano (about 30 minutes drive from Rancho Caridad) I visit periodically for my hot springs therapy. That makes us practically neighbors and instant friends! We have coffee together and he invites me to his home for dinner.

After refilling my aircraft with gasoline, I proceeded to the beach resort I stayed in when I took my Vulcan on the Northern Luzon Loop last year. I was looking forward to the Kilawin Tanigue that was prepared by the resort owner himself. Unfortunately, the resort is now under new management, so Roberto brought me to several alternatives (which were either fully booked or beyond my budget) until I finally settled at the Ritz Apartelle--perhaps the least costly accommodation in the vicinity (P600 with aircon for 24 hours; decent, clean and safe) and the closest (walking distance) to the the airport.

Shortly after landing, I noticed some fluid splattered on the radiator and propellers. It was the 2T oil from the oil tank, which had a cracked cap large enough to leak oil. I recall reading this complaint from other users of Rotax 582 engines with the same 2T oil tank configuration. I don't understand why Rotax, arguably the definitive engine choice for recreational aircrafts, would manufacture such a lousy cap for its oil tank. In any case, I purchased some Mighty Bond at the local sari-sari store and managed to seal the crack of the cap (or most of it) before I tagged along with Roberto to have dinner at his home.

Roberto's house is just 5 minutes by motorcycle. However, just a hundred meters from the airport, Roberto's motorcycle got a flat tire, so we walked about 20 minutes to his house, dropping-off the motorcycle at the vulcanizing shop owned by the cousin of Roberto's wife. We arrived at Roberto's house fronting the beach north of the San Fernando Airport. About 200 meters to the left was the private jetty of Philex Mining. A lady offered to sell 1.5 kilos of squid, which we purchased. There was a constant sea breeze as Roberto prepared our fresh catch three ways--kilawin, stuffed/fried and adobo--while we drank our cold SMB. All in all, a pleasant dinner by the beach at sunset. Thereafter, I retire early for my return flight to Rancho Caridad at the crack of dawn.

I think I've been terribly lazy about taking pictures and will be more diligent on my next air safari trips.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Genesis of Air Safari

Air Safari routes in Central Luzon
This summer (April and May 2014) has been a real treat. I'm on air safari most weekends, albeit staying overnight at one destination and returning to Rancho Caridad the following morning. Castillejos (Zambales) and Baler (Aurora), approximately 100 kilometers southwest and east of Nampicuan (Nueva Ecija), respectively, have become my favorite destinations to date. Both airstrips are off the beaten path with nary a visitor except the occasional and brief visits of student pilots from flying schools in Central Luzon. Neither have a control tower nor a transceiver, which simplifies landing and take-off. Yet, both have someone to watch over the airstrip in the few instances an aircraft does land. On most of my visits, I have these airstrips all to myself.

Castillejos is a private airstrip owned by the family of former Governor Magsaysay--cousins of former Senator Jun Magsaysay. The "caretaker" (I call him "Manong") appears to be an informal settler of nearly 20 years rather than an employee of the landowner. Nevertheless, Manong and his son, Omar, have been quite reliable in securing my aircraft during my visits and I am grateful for their services.

Baler is a government (Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines or CAAP) controlled airstrip. Until recently, I would have assigned a low probability of further development to the Baler airstrip, given its remote location and the limited tourist infrastructure in town. However, all that has changed with the recent opening of first class resort facilities in Sabang Beach, Baler. The town is abuzz with tourists and there is a palpable increase in economic activity. Hence, I am afraid I will eventually have to share the Baler airstrip with commercial planes ferrying tourists to and from Manila.

What makes my air safari trips to Castillejos and Baler exceptional is the landscape I fly over en route to my destination.

In the case of Castillejos, my favorite part of the flight starts as I approach the mountains north of Mount Pinatubo and segue above the New Asia Golf and Spa Resort along O'Donnell River. Thereafter, I am over Lake San Marcos and Lake Tambo, which appear to host indigenous Aeta communities. Just a few kilometers south is the Crow Valley Bombing and Gunnery Range (presently called the Tarlac Military Testing Ground), which was the main bombing range of the US Armed Forces in the Western Pacific. It was used for aerial combat training, which included bombing, strafing, ground unit maneuvers and live fire exercises. I cross-over to the northwest quadrant of Mount Pinatubo and float over topography that is stunningly out of this world. I see Mapanuepe Lake on my left as I cross the massive dry river bed of Santo Tomas River, leisurely loosing altitude towards my final approach to the Castillejos airstrip. My flight from Nampicuan to Castillejos takes about 1 hour due to the easterly tailwind; the return trip takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes due to the easterly headwind. The same trip (Nampicuan to Castillejos) by car via the TPLEX, the SCTEX and the national road would take at least 3 hours.

A peek at the peak of Mount Pinatubo (covered in clouds)
On the way to Castillejos, Zambales
This is the way to Iba, Zambales
Mang Lasong and his son, Omar. They secure my aircraft while it's parked at the Magsaysay Airstrip.
Crack of dawn at the Magsaysay Airstrip, just before take-off.
Sunrise at Mount Pinatubo on my return trip to Rancho Caridad

Lake Tambo

Lake San Marcos

Oops! Forgot to smile on my first in-flight selfie.

This time with a smile.
New Asia Golf and Spa Resort

Mount Arayat

A pretty lake along the way
My geographical references: Mount Balungao, Mount Cuyapo and Mount Bangkay.
Rancho Caridad is somewhere in the middle.

In my recent trip to Castillejos (May 9-10, 2014), I flew without the aid of a GPS, confident of my knowledge of the aerial route and its corresponding visual landmarks. All went well going to Castillejos; it was a clear morning. However, on the morning of my return trip, the sky could not have been muggier, blanketing the horizon with a thick screen of humidity. Hence, on the last leg of my flight above the plains of Central Luzon, I could not see any of the small mountains I would typically use as visual references. Heck, I couldn't even visually locate Mount Arayat, the most prominent mountain in Central Luzon. So, I meandered a bit using only the sunrise on the east as reference and eventually got a glimpse of the outline of Mount Bolinao. I was home free!

Mock airfield at Crow Valley
In the case of Baler, my flight from Nampicuan begins with the morning sun gradually rising above the mountains of the Sierra Madre. About halfway through the trip, shortly after flying over the City of San Jose, Nueva Ecija (which incidentally has an old and unused airstrip), I am above Pantabangan Dam and cruise along the southern edge of the Pantabangan Reservoir towards the Canili River Reservoir. Thereafter, I make a beeline for the Baler airstrip as the vast expanse of Baler Bay opens-up like a giant amphitheater with the Pacific Ocean as its stage. My flight from Nampicuan to Baler takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes due to the easterly headwind; the return trip takes about 1 hour due to the easterly tailwind. The same trip (Nampicuan to Baler) by car via national roads would take at least 4 hours.

Shortly after landing at my destination, the first order of business is to secure the aircraft and refill with gasoline--Petron's 95 Octane usually does the trick. The latter allows me to take-off at the crack of dawn the following morning. The remainder of the day calls for some good old-fashioned rest and recreation, along with sampling the local cuisine. After a good night's sleep and a very early wake-up alarm (usually around 4 a.m.), I am up in the air once again at first light.